All Work And No Play

"I have observed the steady decline of play over the past thirty years..Not one child in that first grade seemed to know what imaginative play was".

  • "The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." - Plato -

Edited by Sharna Olfman, Prager Publishers 2003, Westport, Connecticut

In the race for high test scores, kindergarten students and even preschoolers are now subjected to a similar barrage of academic drill work at an age when they were meant to learn through play and hands-on experience. If the NAEP and TIMSS results are an indication, these teaching methods are unsuccessful; yet they are being introduced at increasingly younger ages, in the vain hope that they'll somehow "take," if we start young enough.


In striking contrast to the United States, where formal academics now begin in preschool, several European countries are in the process of raising the age at which they begin formal schooling to six or seven in light of research that demonstrates that children have greater academic success when they begin their studies later.

While American federal policy emphasizes that education is a tool for economic success, many European policymakers start from the assumption that "the interests of young children are the interests of the whole of society" (Clouder, p.72). Recent policy statements emphasize that education and care are conjoined, and must be flexible and developmentally appropriate.

Although I have observed the steady decline of play over the past thirty years, even I was astonished by a recent call from a counselor in an elementary school in Virginia. She had been talking with a first grade class and used the word "imagination". When they stared blankly at her, she explained its meaning, but the children continued to look puzzled. "You know," she said, "it's when you pretend to be someone you're not," and she gave and example from her own childhood when she loved to play Wonder Woman. She would put on a cape and fly down the hill near her house with arms outstretched, pretending to be aloft. "That's imagination," she explained. "But we don't know how to do that," said one child, and all the others nodded their head in agreement. Not one child in that first grade seemed to know what imaginative play was.

The simple truth is that young children are born with the most wonderful urge to grow and learn. They continually develop new skills and capacities, and if they are allowed to set the pace with a bit of help from the adult world, they will work at all this in a playful and tireless way. Rather than respecting this innate drive to learn, however, we treat children as if they can only learn what adults can teach them. We strip them of their innate confidence in directing their own learning, hurry them along, and often wear them out. It is no wonder so many teachers complain that by age nine or ten, children seem burned out and uninterested in learning. This is a great tragedy, for the love of learning .. can last a lifetime. Furthermore, it is intimately bound to our capacity to be creative and purposeful.

In the '70s and '80s, Israeli psychologist Sara Smilansky (1990,p.19) conducted groundbreaking research on the role of dramatic play and sociodramatic play in cognitive and socioemotional development.

Dramatic play has four elements:

1-the child undertakes a make-believe role.
2-the child uses make-believe to transform objects into things necessary for the play
3-verbal descriptions or exclamations are used at times in place of actions or situations
4-the play scenarios last at least ten minutes.

In sociodramatic play, these four elements are present plus two more; at least two players interact with the play scene, and there is some verbal communication involved with the play.

In one study, children were followed and tested in second grade literacy and numeracy. Their ability to engage in dramatic and sociodramatic play was found to be directly linked to a wealth of skills, all of which are essential for academic success.

Smilansky's findings summarized:

Gains in Cognitive-Creative Activities

  • Better verbalization
  • Richer vocabulary
  • Higher language comprehension
  • Higher language level
  • Better problem-solving strategies
  • More curiosity
  • Better ability to take on the perspective of another
  • Higher intellectual competence

Gains in Socioemotional Activities

  • More playing with peers
  • More group activity
  • Better peer cooperation
  • Reduce aggression
  • Better ability to take on the perspective of others
  • More empathy
  • Better control of impulsive actions
  • Better predictions of others' preferences and desires
  • Better emotional and social adjustment
  • More innovation
  • More imaginativeness
  • Longer attention span
  • Greater attention ability
  • Performance of more conservation tasks

Smilansky concludes:

Sociodramatic play activates resources that stimulate emotional, social, and intellectual growth in the child, which in turn affects the child's success in school. We saw many similarities between patterns of behavior bringing about successful sociodramatic play experiences and patterns of behavior required for successful integration into the school situation.
For example, problem solving in most school subjects requires a great deal of make-believe: visualizing how the Eskimos live, reading stories, imagining a story and writing it down, solving arithmetic problems, and determining what will come next. History, geography, and literature are all make-believe. All of these are conceptual constructions that are never directly experience by the child.

Smilansky’s research points to the fact that imagination is as important a medium for learning in the elementary school years as is make-believe for the preschool child. If a child has been allowed to engage in make-believe play during the nursery school and kindergarten years and to develop inner imagination before entering first grade, she is the ripe and ready to learn…By contrast, when a child has not had rich play opportunities, and/or the curriculum fails to engage the imagination, learning is a dull affair. My own experience has also been that the children who were the most active players in the kindergarten were also the most active learners in elementary school.

A study conducted in 1970s Germany, at a time when many kindergartens were being transformed into academic rather than play-oriented environments, bears out the relationship between preschool play and elementary success. It compared fifty play-oriented kindergartens with fifty academically oriented ones. The children were followed until fourth grade at which point the children from the play oriented kindergartens excelled over the others in every area measured—physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. The results were especially striking among lower-income children, who clearly benefited from the play oriented approach. The overall results were so compelling that all German kindergartens were switched back to being play-oriented (Der Spiegel, 1977) They have continued in this mode until the present time.

In one study of low-income children, sixty-nine three- and four-year-olds, who were at high risk for school failure, were randomly assigned to one of three types of programs: High/Scope, traditional nursery school, and direct instruction. Both the High/Scope program and a traditional nursery school encouraged child-initiated play activities, while the direct instruction approach did not. IQ scores rose in all three programs, but various social indicators showed that the children in the programs that encouraged self-initiated activity, including play, were faring significantly better than the children in the more academic, direct-instruction program. At age fifteen, the following results were noted:

Initially, all three curriculum approaches improved younger children's intellectual performance substantially, with the average IQs of children in all three groups rising 27 points. By age 15 however, students in the High/Scope group and the Nursery School group…reported only half as much delinquent activity as the students in the Direct Instruction group.

Findings at age twenty-three continue to support the conclusion that the High/Scope and nursery school groups are better off than the Direct Instruction group in a variety of ways.

The High/Scope and nursery school groups have had significantly fewer felony arrests of various kinds and fewer years of special education for emotional impairment. In addition, compared with the Direct-Instruction group, the High/Scope group aspires to complete a higher level of schooling.

This anthology represents the work of educators and academics form the disciplines of neurology, educational philosophy, and psychology, who are concerned about the trends in education and technology, having dedicated years of their professional lives to studying the nature of learning, the vital role of play, and the impact of computer technologies on children's lives.

The goal of this anthology is to reclaim the language of standards and accountability, and ground them in principles of child development and human pedagogy in the service of educating children to be caring, ethical, creative human beings, who prize humanity and nature, and who will be masters rather than servants of the technologies they help to create.

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